Record number of new synthetic drugs detected

A record number of new synthetic drugs are being detected in Europe — but stretched agencies are unable to keep up with the dizzying array of substances because of budget cuts.

The EU drugs agency said police and health bodies were also facing a “game changer”, with some chemicals capable of being trafficked in small packages but able to produce tens of thousands of doses.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (Emcdda) said that 81 new psychoactive substances were detected by the EU Early Warning System in 2013.

Scientific director Paul Griffiths said this was a “record number” and compared to 73 in 2012, 49 in 2011 and 41 in 2009.

He said that a further 37 new substances had been detected so far this year.

Although Ireland delivered a blow to the trade in many of these drugs — often known as legal highs — with legislation in 2010 effectively banning head shops, much of the trade has shifted online and onto the street. The Emcdda said 650 websites were selling these substances into Europe, compared with just 170 in 2010. The drugs were also being traded on so-called darknets, which are underground online networks permitting anonymous communication.

Roumen Sedefov, head of the agency’s new drugs section, said users did not know what they were taking: “There is little knowledge about new drugs. Some of them are potentially very dangerous in terms of toxicity. There is no history of human use for many of them, no clinical studies and limited pharmacology.”

He said there was particular concern about four new substances that they had analysed: 251-NBOMe (which mimics LSD); AH-7921 (which mimics heroin); MDPV (mimics cocaine); and methoxetamine (mimics ketamine).

Between them they are associated in 135 deaths in Europe. Some are active at very low doses and the margin between recreational use and overdose is “very minimal”, said Mr Sedefov.

Emcdda director Wolfgang Gotz said he was “particularly concerned” at these drugs, where a few grams could produce 10,000 doses. They can be imported into Europe in small packets making it very difficult to detect, he said.

He said he was “deeply concerned” at the threat posed to the Early Warning System, and the “inadequate resources” given to both the Emcdda and national bodies to enable them to keep up with new drugs. “New psychoactive drugs are the most exploding area we have,” he said. “I don’t know how we can continue if we don’t get additional resources.”

Mr Gotz, who is leaving his post after nine years, said European politicians were “not very interested” in this area, even though people rated drugs as an important issue.

* See emcdda.europa.eu.

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